I began reading Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer earlier this week. I’m not as far as Dorothy who at last post was up through chapter five on narration. I just finished chapter four on paragraphs.
So far I am not quite sure what to think of the book. Even though the subtitle of the book is A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, I don’t feel like it’s for readers, at least not the kind of reader I am or really want to be. Maybe this will change later as Prose moves out from words, sentences and paragraphs.
There is something that bothers me about Prose’s tone. I feel as though I am sitting in a classroom and she is one of those know-it-all professors you don’t dare question. Her idea of close reading is dissecting a book word by word. She admits,
Reading this way requires a certain amount of stamina, concentration, and patience. But it also has its great rewards, among them the excitement of approaching, as nearly as you can hope to come, the hand and mind of the artist. It’s something like the way you experience a master painting, a Rembrandt or a Velasquez, by viewing it from not only far away but also up close, in order to see the brushstrokes.
I don’t have the stamina, concentration or patience to read this way, nor do I want to. I might scrupulously read a passage or, at most, a chapter, in this way, but not a whole book. I think it might make me go crazy if I tried it.
Putting on my writer hat, Prose hasn’t, thus far, offered anything new or interesting. Read good writing and read widely; keep books of writers who write good sentences near your desk for reference; read your writing out loud. With this latter point she includes an anecdote about a poet who was reading a draft of a new poem aloud when someone broke into his apartment. The burglar turned and ran out, providing Prose with the opportunity to suggest that reading aloud will not only improve your writing, but may also save your life. Right.
In these beginning chapters, Prose includes passages from authors like Babel, Chekhov, Hemingway, Joyce and others to aid her in her discussion. Most of the time I feel as though she is telling me what I should think of something and not really explaining why I should think that way. Once in awhile she does, like when she discusses the ending of Joyce’s story “The Dead.” Here she pulls out words from the paragraph, pointing out how they affect the tone, make it poetic; how these repeated words “falling” and “faintly” in various combinations make, not only beautiful sentences but a beautiful paragraph too and even help tie together the whole story. This is good, this is the kind of stuff I was expecting. Unfortunately she isn’t doing it enough. Maybe the chapters I haven’t read yet will be better.